The Second Semi-Final
Croatia 2-1 England (aet)
Croatia utilized a slightly different 4-2-3-1 formation than their previous matches. When it played like a 4-1-4-1, Marcelo Brozovic slotted inside in front of the back four, leaving talisman Luka Modric free to play a more advanced role through the center to get closer to goal to make attacking runs into the box for target man Mario Mandzukuc already up top to get on service, or bring in Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic from the flanks to help in attack, with box-to-box midfielder Ivan Rakitic trailing in.
The Three Lions used the same 3-1-4-2 formation they’ve been using to success so far that can morph into a 3-5-2 when they needed to get forward. While wingers Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier brought the ball forward on the wings, the key to England’s attack was the speedy, quick forward runs into the final third by Dele Alli on the right and Raheem Sterling through the center, and sideline-to-sideline runs by Jesse Lingard, all servicing Harry Kane in the box, who was either going to come back deep and bring the ball forward or stay in the box tucked in behind the back-line to take shots on target. Because England were using a risky three-man backline, holding midfielder Jordan Henderson became exceptionally important linking up with the forward attack. Expected Croatian right back Sime Vrsaljko to sit deep to better deal with English flankers Alli and Sterling on the left.
England scored 8 of their 11 goals coming into this game on set pieces: In the 5th minute, it became 9 of 12 on a set piece direct kick from Trippier (the result of a quick direct run by Sterling). Alli found lots of pockets of space behind the Croatian back four, making moves from side to side. As soon as England won the ball, Sterling was up front as the quick outlet into the final third. Croatia’s midfield took a lot of time getting off the schneid in the first half, their movements just seemed to be a little off, like they were getting frustrated early. Keeping Croatia from an organized buildup with their world-class midfield was England’s quick runs and passes forward, forcing Croatia to transition back in defense.
It took 30 minutes, but Croatia realized that if they tried a patient attacking buildup then England were transitioning back in numbers to organize a disciplined defense, but if Croatia were a little more direct with their attack, England were left a little unprepared and less organized in the back. Because they got behind early, Croatia had to press England high. If Croatia was going to continue putting crosses in the box, they had to commit more numbers forward than just Mandzukic.
The break refreshed the Croatians, and they started the second half with greater energy and purpose. That’s exactly what finally happened for Croatia; a long diagonal ball into the box by Sime Vrsaljko, England central defender Kyle Walker is caught flat-footed, and Perisic gets on the end of a one-timer in the 68th minute. England quickly got out of sorts in the back, and Croatia dialed it up a notch. Not much of this game was played in the middle third after that. When they had the possession England had Croatia pinned in their end defending, but when they gave up possession to Croatia they tended to get lulled into a false sense of security; Croatia’s midfield is just too good not to make an impact at some point.
Croatia’s remarkable level of energy was also key, with this game the third time they have been forced to negotiate extra time in Russia. Modric, who looked exhausted for much of the game, still ended up as the conductor for Croatia. Jordan Henderson was being asked to do the job of two men, and it was punishing work, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictating play. When Southgate finally made the change late in the second half, it was to replace Henderson with Eric Dier rather than support him. Perisic, who switched between left and right flanks on several occasions during the game, was a constant threat with his pace, direct running and finishing. And that was when Mandzukuc finally showed up in the box in the 109th minute on a cross by Perisc, catching the England back three switched off at just the right moment (England’s Alli just couldn’t keep up with him the entire match).
This incredible run by the Three Lions came to an unceremonious end. Croatia’s superior quality and command of the ball told in the Luzhniki Stadium, and now the unexpected national side get a date in this same stadium on Sunday for the World Cup.